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March 30, 2006

PCAST Starts its PITAC Work

The President's Council of Advisors for Science and Technology (PCAST) met Wednesday in Washington to hear about the state of U.S. and global science and technology, to get updates on the research initiatives under its jurisdiction, and to begin work on the committee's new responsibility as overseers of the Networking and Information Technology R&D program.

This was the first meeting attended by some of the new members of PCAST -- including CRA's Chair, Dan Reed -- who were named last month by the President to augment the committee's expertise in information technology issues. Reed, the only member of PCAST who served on the now-extinct President's Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC), gave a presentation on the work of that former committee as a way of helping the PCAST get a handle on its new responsibilities.

From the discussion that followed, it appears that the committee's two co-Chairs -- John Marburger, Director of OSTP and Floyd Kvamme -- hope PCAST's examination of NITRD includes a good look at the current structure of the initiative's Program Component Areas to see whether it's still logical, and perhaps determine some appropriate metrics for gauging the quality and effectiveness of the research investment. The review will be undertaken by PCAST's Subcommittee on Information Technology Manufacturing and Competitiveness Networking and Information Technology, chaired by George Scalise, president of the Semiconductor Industry Association.

Marburger pointed out that metrics are very important to the President, who wants to measure not only the inputs (how much we spend) for these programs but the outputs (what we get). He thought that folks in the software industry, who had been "so influential" in making the case for basic research to the White House during the run-up to the introduction of the President's American Competitiveness Initiative, might be very useful in developing some metrics. PCAST ought to reach out to the industry folks who felt so strongly about the need to support basic research, Marburger said, and find out how they measure success.

There was also a lot of discussion of whether workforce considerations -- specifically the issue of "outsourcing" -- ought to be part of the PCAST review. I think the consensus was that workforce is a competitiveness issue and "competitiveness issues are very relevant." In part, the workforce issue determines whether the U.S. will continue to be a "center of innovation," the panelists said, so it's very important. They also noted the national security component of the workforce debate (how the use of offshore labor impacts applications we depend upon for national security purposes).

Scalise, who will be heading the review effort, said the two questions he wants to keep in mind during the review are: Where is the raw innovation in the field coming from? And to what degree is the ecosystem critical to what happens? All members of the panel seemed to agree that IT research community is central to everything -- the economy, health care, national security, the conduct of the sciences -- and the federal government ought then to "keep it innovating."

It's not clear how this study will move forward yet. The subcommittee met yesterday for the first time to hear from various agency representatives about the PCAs. There was much talk and encouragement from the PCAST co-chairs about adopting the "Technical Advisory Group" model for the IT study, just as PCAST used it for its look at the National Nanotechnology Initiative. The TAG would be a "virtual" advisory committee composed of 30-50 prominent members of the field who could be queried by e-mail or phone about issues before the subcommittee. Kvamme claimed this model worked especially well for the NNI study, though the PCAST executive director wasn't quite as enthusiastic about it in her update to the committee in January (response rates were less than hoped). Perhaps members of the computing community will be more willing to serve in that role....

The other highlight from Wednesday's meeting was a presentation from Rolf Lehming, curator of NSF's incredibly useful 2006 Science and Engineering Indicators. The S&E website has the full overview, which is worth a read, but here are some of the points that jumped out at me during the presentation:

  • Increasingly, science and technology is seen worldwide as at the core of economic development. Consequently, there has been a broad expansion of S&T activities worldwide.
  • Growth in S&T activities is ubiquitous, especially in Asia outside Japan.
  • Europe and Japan are losing world share.
  • The U.S. is holding its own.
  • China's R&D growth is "unprecedented" for any country in recent memory, in part reflecting an large increase in R&D performed by foreign-owned, China-based firms, but also, increasingly, government investment.
  • Student visas may have turned a corner -- though the number of student visas issued is still 25 percent below the pre-9/11 level, the number has risen significantly over the last two years or so.
It's still somewhat shocking to me to see that the White House is now open to discussing these indicators so prominently, given where they've been on the issue for the last five years. Now, if they could only get through to the House leadership....

We'll obviously have more on the efforts of PCAST as they move forward.

Posted by PeterHarsha at March 30, 2006 01:24 PM
Posted to Policy